The African Cup of Nations’ effect on Arsenal sums up the slightly oddball line-up for this year’s tournament. That Alexandre Song could line out against Swansea was a huge boost (at least until his somewhat floundering performance on the day). That Marouane Chamakh could not was… well… a huge boost too. Cameroon’s absence from the ACN finals seems the biggest surprise, with our focus, disappointingly but understandably, on which Premier League players would be missing for the next few weeks. Nigeria’s absence is a surprise too, though more through past reputation than present achievement; the teams that have taken part in more recent international tournaments – ACN and World Cup finals – have been a ghastly shadow of teams of yore. 

So Blackburn Rovers weren’t going to be shorn of their “goals for column”, better known as Yakubu, for the duration. This would have been a huge boost, too, if the silly man hadn’t got himself sent off against Fulham. Still, with some astute ownership and experienced, realistic management, Rovers should be fine…oh… Morocco’s presence, with Chamakh up front, is certainly a surprise in London N5. But the real shock is Egypt’s absence. The reigning champions actually retained their crown in Angola in 2010, having won the 2008 competition in Ghana, where they actually retained their crown having won the 2006 competition at home. Yet they finished bottom of a most dramatic qualifying group (below).
It isn’t quite like imagining this year’s Euros without Spain, as Egypt have proven as efficient at avoiding World Cup Finals tournaments as winning African ones. Maybe a World Cup without Brazil would be a better analogy. But it will deprive the competition of a team who played equally-invigorating football in Angolan and Ghana. And an Egypt-sized hole is a big one to fill. Senegal are flavour of the month from this distance, but that is exclusively down to Demba Ba’s stunning impact on the Premier League in 2011 – for both West Ham and Newcastle, it should be remembered. And Ba’s qualifying tournament was relatively low-key, except for the fact that his one goal was a stoppage-time winner at home to Cameroon, who would have made the finals at the Terenga Lions’ expense if they’d held on in Dakar and won in Yaounde instead of drawing 0-0.

Cote D’Ivoire were the most prolific qualifiers, swatting away Rwanda, Burundi and Benin with more points and almost as many goals as the others put together. Ghana only drew one match and conceded only one goal. While at the other end of the scale, Niger qualified for their finals debut with nine points from a group that was one long statistical freak. With Egypt having failed to win a game, Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone entered the final round of matches with the proverbial “all” to play for. Niger were top. But they faced a trip to Cairo, having lost their previous two on the road, while the other two sides met in Nelspruit. True to their abysmal away form, Niger lost 3-0. Meanwhile, with victory guaranteeing qualification for either side, South Africa and Sierra Leone couldn’t find a goal between them. 

This left South Africa with a superior goal difference, so Bafana Bafana boss Pitso Mosimane made tactical switches late on to preserve their point. They worked. South Africa drew and lapped the pitch in celebration. However, it soon emerged that Bafana Bafana were maintaining a tradition started by South African cricket teams who have fallen foul of convoluted rules in past World Cups. The head-to-head clashes between Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone determined the group winners. And Niger’s six points in those games saw them through. South Africa were doubly unlucky, as a similarly convoluted rule denied them qualification as one of the best runners-up. Niger are one of three finals debutants, alongside co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and the dullest-looking qualifiers Botswana who only managed seven goals in eight group games…but only conceded three. Tunisia automatically qualified, by coming second in Botswana’s five-team group.

Cape Verde were nearly a fourth debutant and arguably the unlikeliest of the lot. But they lost on head-to-head results with Mali who won their home game 3-0 after losing 1-0 in Praia. Guinea saw off Nigeria’s challenge, with a late equaliser in Abuja by Stuttgart wideman Ibrahima Traore proving dramatically decisive. Morocco overcame regularly volatile finalists Algeria to win their group. Angola, hosts last time out, came from four-points behind Uganda with two games to go to qualify. 2008 tournament find, and ex-Manchester United player, Manucho scored Angola’s first or only goal in the vital games. And Burkina Faso comfortably won their three-team group. Zambia and Ghana’s group wins were overshadowed by the triumphs over ‘little local difficulties’ of Sudan and…Libya who qualified as the best runners-up in the four-team groups. 

Sudan are no longer a nation, after partition in July 2011, although the fledgling South Sudan national side still has international affiliations to sort out. While Libya are a very different nation indeed after the bloodiest of cabinet reshuffles last spring (the affect on the “Arab Spring” on North African teams is examined in highly-readable detail by Matthew Barrett on the Sporting Intelligence website). Libyan football was hugely complicated by the fact that Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saadi could play the game properly – even if his career was boosted by the predictable “helping hands.”  So “politicised” was almost a euphemism.

Libya’s pre-uprising captain, Tariq Ibrahim Al-Tayib, openly declared his and his team’s support for Gaddafi. But that was probably why he was captain. Others thought differently as they metaphorically battled on at neutral venues while real battles were fought at home (never were metaphors of war to describe football more inappropriate). Libya’s triumph was hailed as “for our revolution” by new captain Samir Aboud (Al-Tayib was, naturally, dropped). And coach Marcos Paqueta declared that his team was “playing for a new country” prior to the 0-0 draw with Zambia which, in complete contrast to South Africa’s afore-mentioned 0-0, ultimately saw both teams through.

Gabon’s qualification as co-hosts comes two years after they were squeaked out of a quarter-final place in the Angolan tournament’s tightest group. However, Equatorial Guinea have no such competition tradition and are internationally-ranked lower than the earth’s core – the lowest Fifa-ranked team (and by some distance too, at 151) in the tournament. A thought-provoking article by Sam Wallace in the Independent newspaper likened Equatorial Guinea to Qatar – in the “lots of lovely oil” sense, as much as “the only way Equatorial Guinea were going to play in the African Nations was by hosting it”. But this blazed no trail, as Austria and Switzerland showed in Euro 2008. Wallace was also scathing of the African Confederation (CAF) for selecting politically “unsuitable” tournament hosts (Libya were due to be 2013 hosts until their “regime change”). Again, though, the CAF were hardly pioneers. Argentina in 1978 wasn’t all ticker-tape and Mario Kempes, for instance. Wallace’s basic point was a good one, well-made. The event has become “the target of oil-rich nations with dubious track records and in need of a PR-stunt.” Like Ukraine, Russia and Qatar, perhaps? Africa doesn’t deserve singling out on this issue.

Senegal are clear Group A favourites and could genuinely become the first major international tournament winners with a Newcastle United strike pairing – Papiss Demba Cisse having just signed up to partner Demba Ba. Libya might be just genuinely happy to be there. And although they are better than that, they will have to surprise Zambia to qualify for the quarter-finals – despite the Chipolopolo being coached by Robbie Savage stunt double, Frenchman Herve Renard. Equatorial Guinea will open the tournament against Libya but could be the first to leave it too. Yet their President, Robert Mugabe-lookalike (and rule-alike, according to Wallace) Teodoro Obiang Nguema, sees no reason why the team shouldn’t win the thing. With the type of football judgment known these days as “a Venkys”, Nguema said: “the women have won the Africa Cup of Nations, so why shouldn’t our men?” This was largely because the women’s team are quite good – impressing in last year’s World Cup finals. Perhaps Equatorial Guinea should field the women instead, although this has probably not been suggested, in case Nguema warms to the idea.

Cote D’Ivoire should avoid a Group B exit, despite the pressure of perennial pre-tournament favouritism. Angola only took home advantage to the quarter-finals in 2010 and looked a much better outfit in 2008. Sudan may benefit from a home-based squad, with two teams providing 19 players. But they will need more than that to progress. While Burkina Faso were only assured of qualification on January 10th, after the failure of Namibia’s protests that the Burkinabes fielded an ineligible player.

Group C could be a North African one-two, with Morocco and Tunisia set to progress. Niger’s appalling away form and lack of previous pedigree should stand against them. And while Gabon are the better of the co-hosts, this is damnation by the faintest of praise. Their under-23s did, however, recently qualify for the London Olympics, beat Cameroon in the 2010 tournament and will hope to follow Ghana’s example from 2010 where the Black Stars World Under-20 Cup winners formed the basis of the ACN finalists. But Gabon are no Ghana, who are widely regarded as tournament second-favourites and ready to pounce if (when?) Cote D’Ivoire crumble under the weight of expectation. 

In Group D, containing Mali, Guinea and Botswana, complacency might prove the toughest opponent for a squad still sprinkled with Under-20 world champions and 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists. And if penalties are needed, everyone will be willing Asamoah Gyan to score – except, perhaps, Steve Bruce. Thankfully, the Euro-centric debate about African players’ choice between the tournament and European club football has been less evident than previously, when some commentators struggled with players such choosing their nation over Wigan Athletic away. It is an old statistic. But it is always worth remembering that the majority of finalists (ten, this year) weren’t even independent nations when the first ACN was held in 1957. The DW Stadium in the rain offers no contest in that context.

British Eurosport will again lead the way by some hours in domestic TV coverage, although their seemingly 28-hours-a-day coverage of the Australian Tennis Open might necessitate a few trawls around the schedules. ITV 4 is promising the sort of daily highlights package which is a Matt Smith trademark. And they will show four live games – one from each knock-out round and Cote D’Ivoire v Burkina Faso in Group B, not thought to have been selected because of Aristide Bance’s potential appearance up front. he winners? Cote D’Ivoire’s time has come. I probably said that last time…and maybe the time before that. But I’ll keep saying it until they get it right. This time, surely.

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